September 19, 2016

Electric Dreams (1984)

Miles (Lenny Van Dohlen) is a nervous young architect hoping to make the big time with a new earthquake-proof brick design. He is persuaded to buy a personal computer to help with his work, and after an unintended accident involving a bottle of champagne his computer becomes self-aware. What's more, it begins competing with him for the affections of his neighbour: a cellist named Madeline (Virginia Madsen).

Electric Dreams - a romantic comedy directed by Steve Barron - is one of those films that is so completely influenced by the culture of its time that it now stands as a sort of time capsule of the year in which it is made. It is packed with the pop music of the time, and boasts a wonderfully naive idea of what computers are and what they are capable of doing.

It is a pretty terrible movie in many respects, but in others it is rather sweet. Its most interesting moments are actually the ones where it unintentionally gets a little creepy.

One of the film's biggest liabilities is Lenny Van Dohlen, who comes across as remarkably stiff and awkward as Miles. The film is intended as a romantic comedy, and he does not come across as either romantic nor funny. He is working with relatively poor material, which doesn't help his case: Miles effectively woos a girl through deceit, and while the script threatens him with having his secret found out (his romantic songs and overtures towards Madeline are the work of his computer and not him) he never actually suffers any real consequences for his behaviour.

Virginia Madsen is appealing as Madeline, but lacks much in the way of agency or material. Maxwell Caulfield has a supporting role as an apparent romantic rival, but either his scenes were mostly edited out or his role was under-written to the point of redundancy.

Where the film works is in the scenes involving musical performances, notably a very well-edited sequence in which Madeline practices a piece of music on her cello and Miles' computer joins in - each hearing the other's performance through an air vent. The photography and editing give the scene an energy that really lifts the entire film around it - Steve Barron was one of the finest music video directors of the 1980s, and scenes like this really showcase him at his best.

Some of the film's other interesting scenes are the ones that flirt with the computer - which ultimately names itself Edgar - threatening Miles with violence or even death. There's a weird sense that these moments are not intended to be frightening, but that Barron has over-shot somewhat when directing them. In places Edgar becomes genuinely unsettling: not just a romantic rival, but an obsessive stalker intent upon murdering the other suitor. There is a whole film sitting there worth exploring by some future filmmaker - I think the concept is ripe for a remake - but as it is here it's slightly weird and underdeveloped.

There is a lot of added value in the film's musical soundtrack. As one of many films produced in the wake of Flashdance, which revolutionised movie soundtracks, Electric Dreams is packed with contemporary pop songs. The title number, "Living in Electric Dreams" by Phil Oakley and Georgio Moroder, is iconic enough as to overshadow the actual film these days.

Still, in the end a bunch of interesting moments and scenes and a nicely nostalgic 1980s soundtrack do not add up to a properly enjoyable movie. Some older films gradually become cult hits or even genre classics. Others simply get left behind. Despite some interesting aspects, ultimately Electric Dreams needs to be left behind.

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